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Joseph: Welcome all to today’s Endowment for Middle East Truth Webinar featuring Syrian dissident and activist Ahed Al Hendi. Since the Arab Spring erupted in Syria in 2011, over half a million Syrians have been killed. Approximately 5 million had become refugees and 23 million had been displaced, mainly within Syria. Because of Bashar al-Assad’s particularly brutal and heinous crackdown on his own people, Syria’s membership in the Arab League had been revoked. However, this past May, in advance of a summit of the Arab League in Saudi Arabia, the decision was made to allow Syria back in. The Assad regime has gotten much of his support from Moscow under Putin and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Why has the Arab League decided to ignore Assad’s egregious atrocities since 2011 and let him back into the fold? What does this tell us about the rapidly changing geostrategic dynamics of the Middle East and what is behind this? Here to speak to us about this is a great friend of EMET’s, Ahed Al Hendi.

Ahed Al Hendi is a dissident who fled Syria four years ago. As a student, he was imprisoned and tortured by Syrian authorities for establishing a secular antiregime student organization. He is now the Arabic Programs Coordinator at, a New York-based human rights organization that amplifies the voices of pro-democracy bloggers in the Middle East. He has held meetings with many members of Congress in order to highlight human rights abuses in his home country. He has also met with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other high-level diplomats to highlight the abuses of human rights in Syria.

Al Hendi is in touch with a wide network of activists in Syria every day and writes frequently about democracy in the Middle East. In the past, Al Hendi has worked with the Samir Kassir Foundation in Lebanon as its Syrian research. He has been interviewed by leading American journalistic organizations like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. His articles have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Reuters, and other large media organizations.

Before we start, I’d like to mention that our work is only possible with the support of you all. If you find what we do informative and helpful, consider sponsoring a future webinar or contributing to EMET. It is your help and support that allows us to continue with our important work on Capitol Hill to ensure a prosperous and peaceful Israel in the Middle East, fight the influence of the Iranian regime, increase US National security, and improve the welfare of Jewish Americans. Thank you.

And without further ado, I’d like to introduce Ahed Al Hendi.

Ahed Al Hendi: Thank you, Joseph. I would like to thank EMET and Sarah for always being their continuous support for the freedom movement, the democracy movement in the Middle East, and their firm support of the State of Israel, the only democratic state in the region.

Ahed: First, I want to go into a brief history about the relationship between the Assad regime and the Arab countries and specifically the Arab monarchs. As we all know, after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, many movements in the Arab world, have been influenced by the Russian Revolution and they started to call for the establishment of the rule of people against the rule of the old dynasty. And Syria was one of these countries. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and many of these countries. They have witnessed movements that called for the rule of people. But unfortunately, we did not see any of these democracies coming into reality in any of these countries.

Instead of abolishing the old dynasty, we come up with new dynasties like the Assad dynasty, like the Saddam Hussein dynasty in Iraq, that have no experience in dealing with people, that people don’t trust. They have committed a lot of atrocities. In these countries, we have seen a lot of tension between these republics like Syria and Iraq, and the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, since these countries they have monarchs. Because of this, we have a lot of mistrust between the two camps, the Republican trends or so-called Republican trends versus the monarch trends.

I would hear more speak about the relation between Saudi Arabia, which lead the Arab Gulf countries and the Syrian regime. Always when the Syrian regime was weak and when there is American support against the Syrian regime, we saw that Saudi Arabia took the lead in encircling the regime, in standing against the regime. The first incident was in 2005 when the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Back then, we had George W. Bush as the President of the United States. And there has been a big American support to the Lebanese freedom fighter that led the Syrian army to end its occupation to Lebanon.

Back then, all the Arab countries supported the Lebanese opposition. They stood with the Lebanese people. But that didn’t last much because by 2009 when we had a new administration in Syria and the United States. And then we have the Pivot to Asia policy, where we did not have a strong foreign relation, American foreign relation on the Middle East. We saw that the Arab countries started to back off. They saw how the American administration was willing to engage with Assad, and was willing to engage with the Iranians. We saw the Iranian deal. That made them feel more weakened. They said to themselves the United States is backing off, we need to back off.

Now, this lasted for two years. From 2005 to 2009, when Obama came to power, Arab countries were very much against Assad. Then after that, from 2009 to 2011, Assad countries start to re-engage with Assad. Assad visited Saudi Arabia, met with the Saudi King back then. He even met with many Western leaders despite the fact that he killed an elected Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri.

But in 2011, things changed on the ground. The people went into the street as it became much, much weaker than before. We started to see many Syrian cities being liberated by Syrian freedom fighters. That led Arab countries again to work against Assad, and to start to support the Syrian opposition groups. And this lasted for a while. Arab countries, they revoked Syria’s membership in the Arab League. They withdrew all of their ambassadors from Damascus. They took a stand, a firm stance against Assad, against its Iranian backers.

But also it did not last. When we saw less American leadership in the region, when the Arab countries, saw how the Obama administration is engaging more with Iran. How it’s in first-day in office, they took Al Houthi, which is a terrorist group in Yemen, from the terrorist. And as we know, Al Houthi was attacking UAE, was attacking Saudi Arabia with drones, with missiles that supported by Iran. That sends a very bad signal to the region, that sends a signal that the United States is trying to engage with bad players in the region, which is Iran with Assad. So, the Saudis and the Arab country wanted to secure their back. This is why we’re seeing them engaging with Assad again, although there is an American opposition to that.

So, the US administration is telling them don’t reconcile with Assad, don’t get Assad back to the Arab League. But at the same time, the Saudis and the Emiratis are telling the United States don’t talk to Iran. I mean, Iran is the biggest player here. The Assad regime would have fallen a long time ago without Iranian support, without the support of Hezbollah. So, when they started to see that the United States is showing weakness when it comes to Iran, when it comes to Hezbollah and other players in the Middle East, the Arab countries are so much afraid of destabilization the regime, the Syrian regime, the Iranians. They rely on many non-state actors that could carry a lot of terror attacks in all of these Arab countries and destabilize these Arab countries.

And these Arab countries are trying to work now on becoming an economical hub and a touristic hub. Especially after what we saw, that the UAE has took a very brave position by signing the Abrahamic Accord. Not only UAE, and many other Arab countries, including Bahrain, Oman. So they needed US support back then. They needed a big country like the United States to stop and to support them, to stand with them. But Thursday, Biden came to office taking Houthi out of the terror list, speaking more about the Saudi atrocities or crimes in Yemen and not looking at all what Assad has been doing, what Iran has been doing in the region, really send a bad signal in a time where they really needed a big support from the United States. Because all the rhetoric of Al Houthis, also Hezbollah, that they use it against Iran or against the UAE, against Saudi Arabia. It’s about how they signed the peace deal with Israel. So, I believe this has played a big role in pushing the Saudis and the Arab countries to get Assad back to the Arab League.

Joseph: Thank you. So I’d like to ask you, if the Arab League kicked out Assad originally for these atrocities and now they’re letting them back in over geopolitical calculations, what do you think their reaction will be to future atrocities? Do you think they are going to completely ignore them or will there be some form of condemnation?

Ahed: Well, the atrocities did not stop in Syria. We are still hearing daily basis reports from Syrian prisons about torture that has been committed on a daily basis by the Assad regime. Unfortunately, with what’s happening now in the Middle East, when a country like Iran who committed a lot of crimes, who even tried to assassinate people in the United States, is giving a great model to all of the bad actors in the Middle East telling them, “Look, we’ve been so bad, but the United States wants to talk to us. So, they’re going to disregard all of our atrocities”.

I’d say, unfortunately, it’s going to continue. I mean, if atrocities have been committed on a larger scale by the Assad regime, there is no sign that the Saudis or the Emiratis or any other Arab country would do anything unless we have a strong position from the United States. Not only verbal condemnation, because we hear it a lot. We hear a lot of words. We have been hearing that. Assad is a dictator. Assad is not legitimate. We have heard about red lines. When Obama told Assad, if you use chemical weapons, that’s a red line. Assad used chemical weapons. And then, there has been no punitive measurement against the Assad regime. So these countries, with their current structure, they cannot stand alone against Iran and against the Assad regime. There should be a big American role here. And without the United States, none of these countries can really stand firmly against Iran and against the Assad regime.

Joseph: Thank you. Can you speak to some of the crimes against humanity that the Assad regime has committed?

Ahed: There are tons of them. I mean, we have all seen and heard about the Caesar Act, in which Caesar as a code name, was given to a photographer that was working with Assad in Assad prison. And he took thousands, ten of thousands of photos of people who were protesters, peaceful prisoners who were tortured to death in Assad prison.

I personally experienced some of Assad’s atrocities when I was jailed yearly, even before 2011, in 2006. And I’ve seen in my eyes how people were tortured. I remember I was telling the prison guard back then, that there is a guy, a prisoner, that is about to die. He was tortured really hard. And he told me, don’t worry. The next day, in the morning, if he’s dead, we’re going to put him in the trash can. This is how they look at human beings. There is no value to us. More than half a million people were killed in Syria. And Assad still, every time you see him, he’s smiling at cameras. He’s laughing. When he was asked about these questions, he laughed. I mean, he doesn’t have any feelings towards all that has happened.

We have more than 5 million Syrian refugees. Why they are refugees? They lost their homes. Their homes have been destroyed completely. Many cities were wiped. And what’s happening now? The United States wants to start a new deal with Iran. Without Iran, there will be no Assad regime. There will be no Hezbollah. We would not see all of these atrocities. Up until now, Iran sent fuel to Assad to use it for its army, the army that is still committing atrocities inside Syria. Chemical weapons, let aside the chemical weapons. There is a massacre that was very notorious called Al Houla Massacre. They used knives to kill children just because their parents were political dissidents to the Assad regime. Knives. They took videos of these children and send it to the parents who are like, in Jordan or Lebanon or left Syria fearing of Assad.

So we are speaking about a regime that commits crimes and atrocities, something similar to a regime in the Middle Ages. The execution, they become very creative, I would use this, in the way they kill people and torture people. And it’s happening still on a daily basis. There are tons, I mean, tons of atrocities committed by Assad. Half a million people are now, at our time, being killed over the course of the last ten years, and thousands of thousands of disappearances. People who we don’t know where they are, if they’re dead or alive, if they are in the prison or not in the prison. 5 million refugees all over in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. I think it’s the issue of the tragedy of our time. I mean, there is no tragedy that we have seen after World War II, after the Holocaust was committed. And we have seen now half a million people, and it’s continuing. I think the number would go much, much higher when we have independent investigators that can go to Syria and dig, and discover all the mass graves. Every time we are discovering mass graves in Syria, always. So some people, some experts, they estimate the number to be up to a million people who were killed. The fact that the Assad regime is still in power is an atrocity itself.

Joseph: Yeah, the level of brutality is really unprecedented, even for a region like the Middle East, which is pretty brutal in itself. What made the regime this way? I understand that Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father, Hafiz al-Assad. Would this have happened under him? Was this a family thing? Does it have to do with the party, the ideology?

Ahed: I would say it’s a family thing. His father committed similar crimes within Lebanon. Against the Christian groups in Lebanon who were always against the Syrian occupation, who were always against the Palestinian using Lebanon as a base to attack Israel. So he committed a lot of crimes, a lot of massacres against Christians in Lebanon; in Achraefi, a neighborhood in Beirut, and Zahlé in Lebanon, near to the Syrian border.

His father, in the 1980s, also committed a lot of crimes that killed up to 30,000 people in the city of Hama. They also committed crimes against prisoners. They opened fire on prisoners in a military prison called Palmyra Prison. So, he inherited the brutality from his father. The regime came from a minoritarian background. They are Alawite, while the majority of Syrians are Sunnis. And it’s always paranoid. I mean, when you are 5% or up to 7% of the population and controlling all the aspects of Syria, controlling everything in Syria when every single security apparatus is headed by a member of the Assad family, you always feel insecure. So they are always insecure about the fact that they are a minority group.

Usually minority groups in the Middle East, they tend more toward secularism opponents, liberalism. But in our example, the Assad family came from a background that is like a gang. All of Assad’s cousins, they’re like gang members. What they do now is look at the Captagon industry in Syria. Captagon is a very dangerous drug, and they call it the cocaine of the poor people. And they turn Syria into a big laboratory, where they are manufacturing Captagon and sending it to Arab countries. So they didn’t have the morals of being rulers, of being noble people who are really leading this country. They always thought about Syria as a gang and controlling these territories. And Assad did, just like his father, and like his uncle. I don’t know if it runs in the family.

Joseph: Thank you. From what I’ve seen, it seems like one of the issues that the opposition to Assad had in the revolution was that they were very unorganized, as well as their backers who were backing them up. But in your eyes, was there ever a good alternative to Assad?

Ahed: At the beginning of the uprising, yes. Let me speak a little bit about that. I grew up in Syria. I was raised in Syria up until I was 21, 22 when I fled the country because I was jailed in Syria. So I know what it means to be raised in Syria. Since we were young, at the age of 6, going to school, they have us to stand in line and chant for the president. And it’s very similar to a Nazi regime. We used to wear a uniform. We stand in line. We give greetings every morning to the president, and we give a pledge that we will fight imperialism, which is the United States, Zionism, which is Israel, and the Regressive States, which is Saudi Arabia, and the monarchies. So we have been indoctrinated at an early age. We don’t have any type of organization or voluntary groups outside of the government. Everything is mandatory by the government.

We have one TV channel, just like North Korea. They air maybe half of its segments to praise the Assad regime, the Ba’ath Party, and the ideology of the Ba’ath regime. And so, people don’t have the experience of forming groups, of creating political parties, of creating campaigns, political campaigns. We were in a prison, a big prison, all raised up in it, without any experiences. I mean, everything we learned is from the Assad regime. They stuffed the brain of the Syrian people with hatred toward others. In my time, all the hatred was directed toward Israel. That all the problem, all of our problems come from Israel. This is how they taught us at school, on Syrian national TV. If we have a problem with a power outage, they would blame it on Israel. If we have unpaved roads, they would blame it on Israel. So, everything was blamed on a supernatural power that we don’t know anything about it.

And then all of a sudden, people got the guts. They went to the streets. They were fed up with what was going on, and they started to challenge the authority of the Assad regime. That itself was a miracle, I would say. As a person who was raised in Syria, I was seeing how Assad’s statues were attacked, which spread all over Syria. Everywhere you go in Syria, you’d see a big statue of Assad. Photos of Assad everywhere. We have seen people, protesters going and breaking them, and stepping on them. I mean, that was like a real miracle.

But after that, what next? Yes, I will tell you. The Syrian opposition failed to create some good alternatives to the Assad regime. They locked themselves into the same rhetoric that Assad have put upon us. So they started and all of their focus was, we started to blame everything on Assad, which is true. But we need to work, to do something for ourselves rather than only blaming the Assad regime for everything that happened to us. So basically, because of this fact, people at that time, when Assad started to commit a lot of atrocities, resort to their more primordial identities. They go to the supernatural powers, to God. And, you know, the majority of Syrians are Muslim. I’m not Muslim. I don’t come from a Muslim background. But I understand how many Muslims are in Syria. They resorted to Islam in order to feel more secure.

When you have a regime committing big atrocities against the people, and this is what I would say ruined the Syrian revolution and the Syrian uprising, we had a lot of players outside that exploited this fact. We have a lot of groups like Al Qaeda, who became later ISIS. They wait and sit and look to see something like this is happening, to go and pretend that they are the saviors of the people. They started to carry out very successful attacks against the Syrian regime. One of the attacks killed the brother-in-law of Assad, who was the head of the Syrian military intelligence, a very notorious police, a secret police that has been very famous for committing crimes and torturing people.

So when you are a person, armless, seeing Islamic groups carrying very successful attacks against the Syrian regime, you start to have hope, “They’re going to save me”. But unfortunately, these groups were as bad as Assad. They are no different than Assad. I always say Assad took my political freedom. And this group, they want to take my political freedom, my social freedom, and my religious freedom. So, yes, a big part of the Syrian opposition was Islamist and that is also a factor. Another factor why countries like UAE have distanced themselves from the Syrian opposition groups. Because they saw that there is a Muslim Brotherhood. A dominant group among them is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Having said that, I don’t say that there is no hope. If we look at Northeast Syria, which is basically controlled by the Kurds, their situation is not like this. I would say there is a very great model that is being established there. We have gender equality. We have equality in that part of Syria. We have equality between all religious groups. It’s a great system that’s been established there. But unfortunately, because of the Turkish opposition to this example. As we all know, Turkey is always paranoid about Kurds and any Kurdish movement. The fact that the leading elite in that region is Kurdish, makes Turkey very paranoid. And as a result, it makes countries like the United States and Europe not be really firm and strong about supporting this region as an alternative to Assad. That region is almost one-third of Syria. All of the Syrian resources are in that region, the oil and agriculture. They have about 100,000 people who are in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is an army of very trained professionals. We have American bases in that region. I was able to visit this region 3 years ago, and I’ve seen in my eyes that a lot of progress is happening there. But the challenge of Turkey, I would say that the fact that Turkey is opposing this model would make it very hard for them to be an alternative to the Assad regime.

Joseph: Thank you. I’m glad you mentioned the Kurdish region in the northeast. This is something I definitely want to ask you about. But first, you mentioned the indoctrination that was just part of life for Syrian citizens, very totalitarian in nature. And you spoke to how it’s anti-Israel, anti-American. I’d like to ask, what are the main tenets of this ideology? What does it actually stand for? Is it Marxist in nature? Are there parts of Arab nationalism mixed in? Could you speak to that?

Ahed: It’s a mix of all, I would say. I mean, part of it relied basically on old traditional religious texts that have hatred toward the Jews. And they use it a lot to justify all of their problems. As I said, these regimes they came from, they always promised people at the beginning they were revolutionary, they were against the monarchies, they said, “We’re going to bring the rule of people”, and they failed. They did not bring the rule of people. They brought another dynasty that have no experience of ruling in a country like Syria. When they are not successful, they want to have a reason. They want to explain to the people why we are not successful. So, they always would blame it on Israel. And who else than the Jews? I mean, you are speaking about a country where a majority of the people there are Muslim. There are a lot of Islamic texts that incite and motivate hatred toward the Jews. So, they use this.

Ironically, many of the Arab national movements relied on Nazi merit or Nazi inheritance. During the time of Nazi Germany, the Germans supported establishing radio stations in many Arabic countries in Iraq and Syria. And these radio stations were indoctrinating the people. Back then, people don’t have TV, and they don’t have Internet. When you hear something from the radio, it has to be right for the people back then. Most of the people were illiterate. They don’t know how to read and write. And the Nazis worked with the Arab nationalist, they worked very well into creating an ideology that carry a lot of hatred toward the Jews. It’s hatred. I would say what carried this regime is the idea of hating. You need an enemy to unite all of these people together. We saw it against the Jews, and now we’re seeing it against the Kurds. You always can find an enemy and rely on all text and bring some old text to justify why we should hate this enemy. That all of our problems, all of our troubles, are because of this enemy. Not because they are a failure, they are not successful, and they are not good at ruling. So, I would say hatred in everything I remember.

As I told you, I’m Syrian and I’m not a Muslim. In Syria, we don’t have a Syrian identity, a firm Syrian identity. There are many groups inside Syria. The Druze, the Syria Christians, the Greek Syrians, the Alawites, the Kurds, and we live in our own cantons. Every group, we have our own neighborhoods. We have our own life. We don’t really integrate with each other, but we have one thing in common that the Assad regime brought and it’s delusion, It’s a fake thing. It’s the hatred. We hate one group. During, when we were young in the school, it was Israel. So I would say hatred. Only hatred is what keeps this regime in power.

Joseph: You spoke earlier about the Kurds. Right now, the situation with the Kurds in Northeast Syria is that the only thing really keeping them independent is a small contingent of American troops. I believe there’s something like 800 or 900 there. Interestingly enough, sometimes there are Russian troops in that area too. And I believe sometimes Iranian ones. The situation has gotten to the point where the Kurds are in direct talks with the Assad regime. What do you think will come out of these talks?

Ahed: I don’t see any future of these talks. I’ve been involved in many meetings here in Washington DC with the Kurdish leadership. And I knew about their meetings with the Assad regime. Basically, they were pushed to meet with the Assad regime during the time when the United States was withdrawing from some parts of Syria under the previous President Trump. When the US troops started to withdraw from some regions in North Syria, we kind of pushed them to go and talk to Damascus. Try to solve your situation with Damascus because the US is not permanently staying there. The only reason that’s stopping Turkey from attacking and taking all of Northeast Syria is the fact that we have American troops over there. And many US officials, they knew that we’re not staying there forever.

So, go and solve your issues with the Syrian regime. There might be a way that the Syrian regime is very desperate now. The Kurds control the oil. They control all the agriculture. And the Syrian regime is almost bankrupt. The only source of money is Iranian loans that come every year, it’s about $2 billion. This is what keeps us, the regime alive. So, maybe the Kurds thought that they could use this leverage that they are controlling the oil. But the regime is disconnected from reality. When they are talking to the Kurds, they’re still talking to them like the regime is controlling all of Syria. They want a calendar to go back beyond 2011 when Syria was in a different shape, when Assad was really controlling all parts of Syria.

In Northeast Syria, you don’t see Iranian troops. You have the Euphrates River that divides Syria. East of the Euphrates River, there are American troops, a few Russian troops, and the Kurdish forces. And as I told you, I have been there. I was able to drive the car from all the way down Deir ez-Zor to the Iraqi border, to an area called Manbij near the Turkish border. As I said, I’ve seen a great change happening in that region. And this small number of the American forces is really keeping that area stable, is really stopping Turkey from attacking that area. It is really stopping the Iranian regimes and the Iranian drones from attacking this area. The Iranians tried a couple of times. They sent the drones to that region, but the US militaries over there, they were pretty strong.

They attacked the Iranian militias that tried to attack the Kurdish forces. And up until now, the status quo is still the same. It’s still good. But that region doesn’t have any kind of political support. We’re supporting them militarily with some light arms because Turkey has red lines as well. They don’t want the United States to support them with heavy weapons. And the Kurds were able to keep the region, they liberated major areas from ISIS. They liberated Raqqa, which was the capital of ISIS. And in Raqqa, they killed many people, including American journalists who were killed brutally in front of the cameras. Raqqa was used as an area where ISIS would send suicide bombers to Europe and to other Western countries.

So the Kurds did, I would say, a great thing not only to Syria but to humanity by really eradicating this terrorist group, ISIS. But they’re not getting the support they need because, I would say, many Western countries like to appease Turkey and cow out to the Turkish demands.

Joseph: So as you mentioned, the Kurds are in a pretty tough spot. A lot of the reason is because Turkey, closed the Turkish borders to areas controlled by the Northeast, areas in the Northeast. Some of the Kurds in Iraq on the Erbil side closed the border as well, under pressure from the Turks. I’m wondering, what is it the US can do? What is it the West can do to alleviate this situation? What kind of political support should we offer?

Ahed: So now there is UN support for a negotiation between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. And there’s something that has been formed called the Negotiation Committee, where half of its members are from Assad appointed by Assad, while the other half are appointed by the Syrian opposition. The Kurds are not there. They’re not represented there at all. So you have a group who are controlling one-third of Syria and they’re managing all the Syrian resources, and they’re hosting American bases over there. They’re governing people of around 3 to 4 million, and they’re not represented. The US did not really work hard on diplomatic levels. I would say, the State Department did not work as much as the Pentagon.

The Pentagon was really good. They work hand in hand with the Kurdish military groups. But when you look at the political branch, we did not really support the Kurds. Not with diplomacy, and not with pushing to represent them. And the Geneva talk, which is, as I said a UN sponsor talk to bring peace and reconciliation in Syria. So basically just support them politically without always being afraid of Turkey. Turkey failed to end ISIS presence on its border. All those border towns between Syria and Turkey were occupied by ISIS. Only because of the Kurds with the US support, ISIS has been pushed out of that region. Most of the terrorists, the foreign fighters who came to Syria, came through Turkey under Erdoğan.

They came through Istanbul, and then from Istanbul, they crossed all the way to Syria. And back then, there are a lot of reports as well, saying that the Turks let them go because their main objective was not fighting ISIS. It was the Kurds. They have a big paranoia about the Kurds. The US, Germany, France, and England – all of these countries, they kind of like the Kurds. Implying, “Yes, you’re doing great things, but stay away from us. We don’t want to really support you in the type of support that you need, the political support. Because if we do so, that would make Turkey angry with us.” And basically, this is a situation that just doesn’t really cow out to the Turkish demands.

We understand that Turkey is an ally, but is Turkey treating the United States as an ally? Is Turkey really helping in all of these threats that the United States is facing and the West are facing? I would say no. The Kurds, yes, they did. But the Kurds, we’re looking at them as a nonstate actor, small players. So I’m saying that the US politicians, would always say, “Why should we risk our relation with Turkey for these small non-state actors that are controlling a small region of Syria?”

Joseph: So, we have sources within the SDC. And I remember when we were speaking to them, they informed us that their goal is no longer independence but some sort of federation with the Assad government. And they believe that following unification, or one of their hopes anyway, is to maybe have some sort of influence on the regime to try to make conditions better inside of Syria. Do you think this is something that is possible?

Ahed: It was possible, I think, before. But now with the fact that many Arab countries, including Arab countries that have forces in Northeast Syria with the US forces like the UAE, are normalizing with Assad, are trying to bring Assad back and promote Assad. Maybe we don’t have the same chances. When I talk to the many Kurdish leaders, they’re very afraid telling us, “Look, the Arab countries are normalizing. The US might normalize with Assad, so we will be in a more of a bad situation.” Assad was very desperate, very weak, and wanted to talk to them. He even met with one of their leaders called Îlham Ahmed. And I think President Îlham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council, met with EMET a couple of times when she used to come here to Washington DC.

They met with Îlham. They wanted to hear from her about what they want. But they were always procrastinating, delaying the solution, saying, “Yes, later, we could solve something.” And they were waiting for this time. They were waiting for a time where Arab countries are fed up, where Iran is showing more strength in the Arab world. Here in the US, we have an administration that really wants to talk to Iran. In a region like the Middle East, when you show this, it is a very bad gesture. It shows that if you were very bad, you did a lot of horrible things, then at the end of the day, the US wants to talk to you. That means we all should be like that.

When Saudi Arabia Emirates really cooperated with the United States on many issues, in the end, with this administration all that they’ve heard about is, “Oh, we might put sanctions on Saudi Arabia because of the war in Yemen”. The Saudis have been very brutal against the Al Houthi which is a group backed by Iran in Yemen. So at this moment, I don’t see that Assad would really listen. Assad now feels victorious, I’d say. Yes, he does not have the same resources as before but, psychologically speaking, Assad and its supporters look victorious. Look, the Saudi kings, the Saudi princess, and the Emiratis — they withdraw their embassies in the past. They revoked our membership in the Arab League. But now they brought us back to the Arab League. Now, we are the righteous. What we did was right. We are able to stand firm and resist, and now they’re going to come back and talk to us. So at this point, I don’t see that the Assad regime would give any compromises to the Kurds.

Joseph: A large reason that Assad is victorious is of course, because of Iranian and Russian support. Obviously, this support isn’t free. Could you speak to the arrangement between the Assad government and Putin’s regime in Russia, as well as the Iranian regime?

Ahed: So you know, Syria is moderately rich in its resources. They have phosphate, they have oil. For instance, the phosphate fields in Syria, which I think Syria is among the top countries in exporting phosphate. This area that was controlled by ISIS, these phosphate fields. After they were liberated, now a majority of the revenues goes to the Russians and to the Iranians. The Iranians are leasing lands, and territories in Syria. Huge, vast areas for 100 years from the Syrian government in return for providing oil, and Iranian fuel, every month that comes to the Syrian port. Which is helping the Syrian army and helping Assad to generate some electricity for the general public. The Russians, at the same time, did the same thing. Now they’re controlling or leased, they have leased a port on the Tartus. It’s a coastal city in Syria on the Mediterranean, for also about a hundred years.

So the Russians, they can control now. They have a big base on the Mediterranean. It’s an issue that they’ve always wanted to do. Even during the Soviet time when they had great influence on Assad and other Arab countries, they were not able to do that as they are now. They are enjoying a lot of leverage in Syria. So, it does not come for free. Yes, without Russia, without Iran, Assad would have been toppled a couple of years ago. But the heavy Russian intervention where they were using their airplanes to attack rebel holes, Iranian militia, and on top of them, Hezbollah, who fought in Aleppo, who fought in the suburbs of Damascus against the rebel groups, all played a big role in making Assad victorious.

But as you said, it does not come for free. Now, in Damascus, you see Iranian militias. You see Hezbollah militias that are stronger than the Assad regime. If you go back 10 years ago or before 2011, Assad had a lot of leverage over Hezbollah. Now, it’s the opposite. Hezbollah, they have much more leverage over Assad than Assad had, their militia groups in Syria. I’ll give you an example. In Syria, there is something called mandatory army service, where you have to serve the army for two years and a half. Now, if you’re a Syrian and a member of the Hezbollah militia, the Syrian army cannot take you to the mandatory service, which also gives a signal and shows how the Hezbollah Irani militia is much stronger than Assad. In the South, near Jordan, near the Israeli border, there is no Assad army. What you see, the main troops on the ground in these regions are Hezbollah and Iranian militias. So Assad is no longer controlling the territories that he controls now. He controls some portion of it, but the rest is controlled by the Iranian militias.

Joseph: So the area that Assad controls isn’t really fully in his control. It’s in the control of several groups; the Russians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. I’m wondering, is this a happy marriage or are there points of contention?

Ahed: It’s hard to understand it. Sometimes tensions happen between them, especially between the Russians or the fraction in the Syrian army that is supported by Russia and the fraction that are supported by Iran. So you’d see, sometimes, a small confrontation between the two groups. But I would say if we look even at the war in Ukraine, the Russians and the Iranian, they get along pretty well. They’re helping each other, and at the same time in Syria. So it’s a marriage, it’s a happy marriage. But this happy marriage, sometimes. there are issues in it. There are some sort of arguments that happens. But I would not say there is any threat to this marriage. They need each other very much, especially the fact that Russia has been isolated because of its war in Ukraine.

So they’re working with each other, pretty much coordinating with each other. And this brings us to the conclusion that some Arab countries, they’re wishing, specifically the Emiratis, by talking to the Assad regime, they can distance the Assad regime from the Iranians. And I would say that’s impossible. The Iranians failed to do that during Assad the Father, when Assad was really strong. When he was controlling Lebanon, controlling half of the Palestinian organization, and even supporting Turkish opposition. Assad was really back then, almost an empire. And they failed to distance Assad from Iran. There is not only an alliance of convenience, there is also the fact that the Iranian regime is Shi’a and Assad is Alawite. Also, there is some sort of ideological alliance between the two regimes. So I would say now, at this time, where all the Iranian militias are very strong in Damascus and other parts of Syria, it’s impossible to distance Assad from Iran. It’s wishful thinking.

Joseph: In the early stages of the conflict, I remember that Russian and Iranian cooperation was not very high. You didn’t see this large level of intervention. You didn’t see Russian boots on the ground. When was it that this changed, and why?

Ahed: I would say after 2014 when Assad’s authority became really at stake. Assad started to lose power, the rebel group was like 15 miles away from us at the Presidential Palace in the suburbs of Damascus. The roads between Damascus and many other Syrian cities were not working. Because rebel groups were controlling these roads. Back then, the two groups felt, “We’re going to lose Assad, we need to work together”. And it started after 2014, Russia started to, by the air force, carry very brutal attacks against the suburbs of Damascus. All the areas that surround Damascus. While on the ground, Hezbollah was trying to advance in these areas. At that time, many people defected from the Assad army. Many Alawites were killed in the war. So you have a small number of Assad army. Assad doesn’t have the human resources to carry out a military campaign to take back many of the Syrian towns that are very close to Damascus. If you take Damascus, then Assad would have collapsed. So, it was almost there. I would say, 2014.

Joseph: Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I know that a lot of Russia’s capacity has been sucked into that conflict. Has this had consequences in Syria? Are we seeing Russian influence diminished?

Ahed: I wouldn’t say diminished. Yes, we’ve seen reports, heard from people on the ground. There are some Russian bases that are replaced with Iranian-backed militias. But practically on the ground, maybe this changed a little bit. The dynamic within the Syrian army, as I mentioned, there are groups that are Alawite officers who are loyal to Russia, and Alawite officers who are loyal to Iran. Maybe the fraction within the Syrian army that is loyal to Iran is more dominant now than before because Russia is preoccupied with its war in Ukraine.

I want to mention this as well, as I said, there are the Alawite officers who are loyal more to Iran and the ones who are loyal to Russia. The dispute between these two groups is that they look at Iran as a threat. That Iran is trying to change even the ideology of the Alawite. Yes, the Alawites are a franchise of the Shi’a or an offshoot of the Shia, but they’re different. They don’t observe Islam in the same way that the Shi’a does. Even many people don’t look at them as a Muslim sect. They have their own faith and their own belief. Some people who are pro-Russia within the Assad army, see that Iran is trying to convert the Alawite villages, Alawite poor people into Shi’a. And Iran has been carrying this missionary kind of trying to convert people into Shi’a, whether they are Sunni or Alawite for almost 20 years, They’re building, what they call, Hosainia. And Hosainia is like a house of worship for the Iranians in many areas that are Sunni, that are Alawite, that are Druze. So there are some fraction within the Syrian regime that doesn’t want to see that, and that makes them cling more to the Russian forces as the Russians don’t want to change anything. The Russians, they don’t care about these issues as much as Iran.

Joseph: That’s really interesting. So it’s the reason that some people go to Iran and some people go to Russia. It’s purely over ideological differences. It’s not based on ethnicity or religion?

Ahed: Basically, it’s because they are all in the same ethnic group. They’re all ethno-religious groups. They’re all Alawites, the people in the elite of the Syrian army. And we have seen some Alawite leaders that were backed by Russia, and supported by Russia. You have even Russian bodyguards staying with them at all times. And we have rumors that they were afraid of being assassinated by the other Syrian army officers who see them as a threat to them. Their main issue was with the Iranians, listen, the Iranians want to convert us. The Iranian wants to change us. While the Russians, yes, have their own interest but they don’t care about changing our faith and changing our religion. On the opposite, the Russians with their mentality, like working with the Alawite groups in Syria. Within the Alawite belief, there is some orthodox. They are influenced heavily by Orthodox Christianity and old Byzantine-like rituals which make them a little bit also closer to the main doctrine in Russia, which is the Orthodox Christians. So this is the argument between the pro-Russia camp within the Syrian army and the pro-Iran camp within the Syrian army.

Joseph: Yeah, it seems to me that if the Iranian if the Iranians achieve their objective, then the Alawites that are currently in favor of Russia would be a lot harder to influence as there would be a lot more responsive to Iran. This hasn’t caused any sort of confrontation between the two governments.

Ahed: We did not really notice it. I believe most of their problems, they solve it behind closed doors. Because if they show any signal that there are disagreements between them, that puts them in a weak position. And so, they are trying to show that there are in unity. They are agreeing with each other. They both want the sovereignty of Syria. But again, there have been some tensions, especially, and it’s good to bring this up here, when Israel carried air attacks against Iranian targets inside Syria, the pro-Iranian groups always blame Russia and tell Russia, “Why did you not tell us?”. Because there are some coordination between Russia and Israel when this happened. At least they need to inform the Russians that we are attacking these areas so your personnel on the ground wouldn’t be harmed.

So the Iranians and their media, sometimes you’d see the Arab media that are supported by Iran, they’re blaming Russia for not warning the Syrian and the Iranian militias on the ground to evacuate all of these areas that Israel has been striking. Because there are suspicious activities being carried on these sides.

Joseph: It seems like when it comes to confrontation with Israel, it’s clearly in Iran’s interest. However, it doesn’t seem to me to be in the interest of Bashar al-Assad as, you know, his regime has enough problems to deal with as is. What are your thoughts on this?

Ahed: I agree. It’s not in his interest at this moment. Yes, he and his father have indoctrinated the people to hate Israel. But he’s pragmatic. Now, a problem with Israel, any confrontation with Israel doesn’t help us at all. Even when Assad was really strong, Israel defeated Assad a couple of times in Lebanon in 1973, defeated his father, and so on. They know that there are superior Israeli militaries there. And now of course it’s much superior than the Assad regime. So Assad does not want this sort of confrontation with Israel now. He does not want Iran to provoke Israel from inside Syrian territories because that would put more challenges on him. Even in the past, if we look at Assad’s history to support all the Palestinian groups and Hezbollah, he supported them when conditions don’t carry any activities from inside Syrian territories. Because he does not want to bear any responsibility. And he does not want to handle a confrontation with Israel. He want to do it indirectly through Lebanon, even through Jordan at some period of time, a long time ago. But the Jordanian government stopped them, so they use Lebanon a lot. They use a lot of Palestinian militias to carry this. But I agree with you, yes. Now it’s not in their interest to do any confrontation with Israel.

Joseph: It looks like our time is up. I’d like to thank you so much for coming and speaking to us. I’d like to also thank our viewers. We’re always glad to put on these sorts of webinars and hope to see you guys next week.

Ahed: Thank you.


About the Author

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